Tuesday, July 31, 2012

2012 MTB XC and Super D National Championships: Trials and Lessons Learned

I figured it's time for a post about this year's Nationals... which for me was a flop.  I'd really been looking forward to going back to Sun Valley after having such a good time last year, and especially considering how well I'd been doing this year.  In the months and weeks leading up to July, I'd been racking up the wins, tons of hours on the bike, and was generally feeling great.  But once July came around it seemed to go downhill for me, physically but also mentally.  I cracked under self imposed pressure.

I'll start with the physical.  So for the most part, I race all season long and let the fitness come and go in little bits as my life dictates, and I never really "peak" or taper intentionally.  I treat almost every race the same and go as hard as I can and accept my result at my current level of fitness.  And my body is really used to, and operates best, on the energizer bunny training method.  So when I decided to "taper" about 10 days out it felt really, really weird.

I had been without my Highball for about three weeks for some repairs and had been riding the Tallboy exclusively.  But I finally got it back in the last week of June for the final Prairie City Race Series race (which I won the Pro/Open 12 week series).

Another hard ride on Thursday followed by an easy commute on Friday.  Then I took Saturday completely off, which I hadn't done in a long time.  But I noticed that my left leg had a little bit of pain behind the knee as I spun cycles in the pool (couldn't help myself).  So I figured the day off was good.  What I didn't know was that I had gotten too use to the Tallboy which had a seat height about 1cm lower than the Highball.  A factor that I never had a problem with since I always had both bikes to switch back and forth.  On Sunday I went up to Auburn for a hill repeat ride that mimicked the Nationals course pretty closely with a 700ft, 16% avg grade climb that I set out to ride 6 times.  I was feeling fine so I didn't really warm up much, using climb 1 as the warm up.  On the 4th trip up I was noticing that pain behind the left knee again but I rode through it.  It was worse on the 5th trip and I considered hanging it up for the day, but decided that I was here for 6 laps so I was going to do 6!  But it was hurting pretty badly by the time I was done.  I figured it was just one of those aches and I'd ice and rest for the remainder of the day and it'd be fine.  Wrong.  I had basically hyper extended my knee and through really hard pedaling and pulling back and up on the pedals, pulled or partially torn my lower hamstring muscle.  Or tendon... whatever... something down there wasn't right.

Ok now about the mental, I'll start on that since it's hard to have one without the other.  I had found out that Jen now wasn't able to come with me to Sun Valley.  I had really been wanting to share that place with her and have her along on the trip.  She just makes my life and every experience so much better.  And besides I think I'm faster at races when she's there because I basically race back to her and get it over with as quickly as possible :-).  She couldn't come because of her (our) commitment to running the registration and timing for TBF racing which had a big triathlon weekend on the same dates as Nationals and nobody was able to cover for her.  So that was a bit of a hit for me because I was looking forward to her coming, but it was in no way her fault.

I was also getting a lot of words of encouragement and support from friends, family and the local cycling community.  Telling me to go get it and to kill it for NorCal at Nationals.  Don't get me wrong, it's SO awesome and incredibly humbling to have so much support from so many people.  But I let it build on the pressure I was already putting on myself for this race.  Now I felt that if I didn't do well I would be letting everyone else down, not just myself.  How's that for setting myself up for failure?

Monday I could hardly walk without a limp, and stairs really hurt.  I was considering not making the trip to Idaho and was getting really emotionally down about it.  I didn't ride and decided to see what Tuesday would bring.  Tuesday I rode in the morning, for a half hour and it hurt.  I still didn't want to give up, so I decided I was going to make the trip anyway since I had 4 more days until the race.  And besides... my new ENVE XC29 Carbon wheels had just come!  So sweet!

The lack of riding was really feeling weird to me and I was really worried about my eating, or that I was over eating because I wasn't riding.  I was getting too focused on what I couldn't do because of the injury and putting myself in a weird mental state.  I should have been viewing this time off the bike as rest my body needs and bonus extra time with Jen before I left for 5 days.

The 10 1/2 hour drive seemed to be ok on my leg and it felt decent when I got there, but I generally felt like crap because I was mindlessly snacking the whole trip to pass the time (Northern Nevada is pretty boring to drive through!).  But I set out for a pre-ride and the first trip up the climb made the leg hurt right away.  I did one lap of the pro course, which was the same as last year.  A 600ft vertical climb up a super steep fire road with a really fun descent with a ton of switchbacks.  And then I set out for a lap of the Amateur course which was new this year with an hour long 3000ft or so climb with some really fun descending off the back of the mountain before coming back down the last DH of the pro course.

I rode for 2 1/2 hours and had a lot of fun including a "pinball" interpretation off of a couple of trees :-).  I'm good!  Nobody saw that!

And it was my first ride on the new ENVE wheels... and I have to say they are SO awesome and stiff.  Adding even more quickness to the Highball.

On Thursday I busted out the Tallboy for some Super D runs.  Also the same course as last year, on which I took 8th.  I was really looking forward to killing this race too and I had that course DIALED!  It was a little more blown out and looser than last year and made for some sketchy moments.  I felt fast but... the first 4 minutes of climbing hurt the leg pretty badly.

Friday I had to take completely off.  The leg was swollen up and it was still iffy that I could race at all.  I did a lot of napping and watching baseball (Go Giants!!!)... and worrying about what I was eating.  I was really thankful to have the internet and be able to chat with Jen and email and check Facebook to still feel connected.  And in discussing my injury with friends I finally busted out the tape measure and that's when I first discovered the saddle height discrepancy between the two bikes.  So I made the adjustments.

Saturday... race day.  I went out for a morning spin to see if it was even going to happen today.  I stopped by the Spidertech booth and got the hammie taped up.  That combined with the new height adjustments I felt good enough to give the race a shot.  Now just waiting for that 4pm start time...

I went out and warmed up, but it was 90 degrees out so I wasn't too worried about not being warm that's for sure.  But I got in about a half hour and the leg was aching pretty badly... I could hardly walk.  But it was time to line up, so here we go!

I started right about in the middle of the pack of 60 or so and as we finished the start loop and turned up the climb for the first time I had fallen back a few spots.  So I stood up and hammered on the climb where I could, gaining some back.  And since standing up didn't hurt the leg I would do as much as I could.

Unfortunately the climb is so steep and so loose that it's just not possible on most of it.  I finally made it to the top, took a chug of water, a couple deep breaths and tried to hammer the DH.  I made a couple passes on the switchbacks taking the hard lines, but it turned out that unclipping my left foot under pressure and planting also hurt the leg.  Damn.

All in all though I was feeling pretty decent and was starting to pick guys off pretty early in the race so I was going for it.  On the second trip up the climb I passed another handful of guys and had a good descent until I got held up by a group at the bottom.  Here's where it got a little weird.  I started to feel a headache coming on, so I figured I was getting a little hungry since it was about that time anyway.  So after crossing the line to start lap 3 I took a gulp of Hammer Gel and a big chug of water.  Then I poured it on to pass that group of three before the river rock garden.  But my body didn't like everything I was doing to it apparently, and by the base of the climb I wasn't feeling right and I couldn't put down any power.  Those guys passed me back and I just put it in an easy gear to try and recover... there was still a lot of time left.

But as I climbed I just watched my heart rate fall down to the 140's, and 130's on a climb where I was putting out an effort I should at least be in the 160's but 170's more likely.  The headache was back and strong, my vision was starting to get a little "bleached," and I was feeling like I wasn't getting any air.  I had felt like this twice before, many years ago and got two ambulance rides out of the deal.  So I decided it was time to stop.  Not to mention my leg was hurting so badly it was aching all the way up through my glute into my back and hips.  Half way up the climb, I pulled off and laid down with my head downhill and waited for EMS.  It wasn't long before they came, with oxygen, which helped a lot.  I kept sipping my HEED/water mix too and in about a half hour of resting there watching guys suffer up the climb and look longingly at my oxygen mask, I was ready to head back down the hill.

It was incredibly embarrassing to roll past all the spectators with a bike that was completely intact and a body that wasn't bloodied.  That was until I got to the flat area and could only pedal with one leg and had to dangle my left... then they could see what was wrong.  Or at least one of the things that was wrong.  So... 2012 XC Nationals... Bonk... DNF.  I hate DNF's and I had just done it in my biggest race of the year.

I still had a chance though for the Super D... not.  I couldn't even bend my leg enough to pedal back to my condo.  What was weird was that after I showered up and ate dinner, the leg felt fine!  That was really annoying and was not making my decision to race the next morning any easier.  So at 9pm I took out the Tallboy and went for a quick pedal to see what was going on and sure enough, two hard pedal strokes in the leg was hurting quite badly again.  I needed to make the "big boy" call right then, and the correct call was to not enter the Super D.  It just wasn't going to be worth the additional damage it was going to cause.  And knowing myself and how much I love to race... and how I would be still tempted to race once morning came around, I packed up and decided to drive home through the night and "race" back to Jen so I could help her out at the Sunday TBF race.  I was happy I made that choice, and I was happy to be home.

I had put so much into the prep for this race, or so I had told myself, and I felt like a failure.  But in reality all my "prep" is just me riding and racing because I enjoy it... it's just what I do.  And I put too much emphasis on this race and too much pressure on myself which took the fun out of it and made it way too complicated and stressful.  So I think I've learned my mental lesson... and to pay more attention to bike fit!

Not every race (or ride!) is going to go as planned, and I'm allowed to have a bad race.  Time to move on...